As phased reopening begins in some states, UCC churches have to decide when to return to in-person worship. These are often hard decisions with no clear answers (as seen here). Please give your church leaders a lot of grace as these decisions are being made.
One of the trickiest aspects of making such a decision has to do with singing. Humming along at home to prerecorded songs during an online service is just not the same as singing together in person. That’s one of the things people seem to miss the most about being together for worship: that special feeling that only comes from a room full of people singing their hearts out in praise of God. When churches reopen, such singing is one of the things congregants will likely want to do first.
In spite of this yearning, we may have to keep from singing in groups for quite a while because doing so is dangerous right now. Choirs, in particular, are a big public health risk in this pandemic, because of the way the coronavirus spreads. The Skagit Valley Chorale, for one, saw an unknowing asymptomatic carrier spread the disease to fellow singers. Within 4 days, 45 of the 60 choir members in attendance that night developed symptoms of COVID-19, and 2 of them died. This incident has caused scientists to label indoor choral singing as a “superspreader” of COVID-19.
The chorale met at a Presbyterian church that night, but it could just as easily been a choir practice at the nearby UCC church in Skagit County – or any of our churches, really. While most of our churches are not home to community chorales, the vast majority of our congregations do have choirs in some form or another. I would also venture to say that all of our 4,882 congregations regularly engage in congregational singing during worship. According to experts, that’s one of the riskiest things we can do in this pandemic: sing indoors in large groups over the course of an hour or more.
As a result, we may be in for a long haul with online worship – not just a few weeks or months, but perhaps for the rest of 2020. One of our churches in Rhode Island has even made the agonizing decision to only have remote worship for another year. In the meantime, we have the challenge of how (or whether) to incorporate music into online worship. As we do, choirs are finding ways to sing virtually (as seen here) to offer inspiration and praise from a distance.
One day, though, we will be worshipping together in person, and it may well happen before a vaccine is discovered. If we return to in-person worship before a vaccine is even found, then doing church “the way we always have” would be dangerous and fundamentally irresponsible. As a result, we may have to figure out how to worship without singing. Unless you grew up in a Friends (a.k.a. Quaker) church, the idea of worship without a choir or congregational singing may be unimaginable. Yet that is entirely likely, and we need to prepare for what such worship will look like at that point.
So how do we go about reimagining vital worship without in-person singing? In Germany, churches are already experimenting with such a format (as seen here). The American Choral Directors Association has put together a resource page to help choir directors figure out a path forward. Perhaps we need to prepare for worship led by a liturgist and a preacher, and only instrumental music.
Truth be told, though, we may have to rethink worship even beyond singing. As it happens, loud talkers and speakers who project well (e.g. preachers, liturgists) likely spread the virus even further than our current social distancing rules would suggest. That might rule out not just choirs, but sermons, and scripture readings in our sanctuaries.
So what shall we do?
Beyond worshipping indoors without singing, another option might be to worship beyond the walls of our churches. As it happens, you are 18.7 times likelier to get this virus indoors than you are outdoors. As wild as it sounds, perhaps our worship will have to move out beyond the walls of the church building and onto our lawns, our streets, and our nearby parks. One UCC church was established two years ago to do this very thing. Before long, our traditional churches may have to think about how to regularly worship outdoors, as well.
For many of us, loving God and neighbor means that we have to stay apart in body for now, even as the Holy Spirit brings us together online. One day, though, we will be worshipping together in person. If we cannot sing God’s praises in our sanctuaries at that time, then we may need to move worship outdoors for a while. Whether we are indoors but not singing, or praising God outdoors, the words of the prophet Isaiah remain true: “the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
David Lindsey has served UCC churches in California, Minnesota, and Virginia. Starting later this year, he will be serving in the District of Columbia as the Executive Director of the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington